Category: MMORPGs

Using Video Games to Solve Complex Problems

The blogosphere and the Twitterverse were buzzing today with news about the latest crowdsourcing coup, where a video game was used to unravel the molecular structure of viral enzymes that cause AIDS in monkeys.

Such tedious work often requires human cognitive abilities, and combined efforts seem to flourish within a gaming environment. The online game used is called Foldit, and Firas Khatib and Frank DiMaio over at University of Washington’s Dept. of Biochemistry along with several others published a paper in Nature detailing the effort, entitled Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Here is their abstract:

Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.

The game looks quite interesting, and by playing you might help make a significant contribution to science.


Beyond Second Life

Tony Bates refers us to an article in the Chronicle by Jeffrey Young: After Frustrations in Second Life, Colleges Look to New Virtual Worlds.

The article details the challenges universities have faced when trying to integrate SL into lessons. Consequently, they are exploring other venues for instruction that offer more controls and fewer distractions.

Sometimes this leads to additional problems. Few companies in this specialty are as established as SL’s parent, Linden Labs. Some have gone broke, taking virtual classroom space with them when the plug was pulled.

A couple of promising efforts either underway or coming this year include Open Cobalt from Duke University, funded by the NSF and the Mellon Foundation, and OpenSimulator which leases virtual space for instructional purposes.

Several initiatives are out there to offer classroom space to educators at no cost to them. Young notes Aaron E. Walsh over at Boston College hosts about 2,000 educator accounts on Education Grid, a world devoted to online instruction that Walsh set up through his project, the Immersive Education Initiative. The mix on Education Grid is about 80% university profs and 20% secondary teacher accounts. The IEI leases space from OpenSimulator.

To counter the academic exodus, SL now offers a version of its software universities can host on local servers, which effectively prevents outsider access and the ability for students to wander over to red light districts.

It’s interesting to see the idea mature from a fanciful notion, to gritty reality, to something tailored for specific educational needs. For instance, initially universities set up virtual spaces identical to real world lecture halls. This resulted in unwieldy virtual space that was hard to navigate. It’s also interesting to see the day coming when SL will be considered “old hat” by professors and students, who will be using newer, more robust environments geared specifically for virtual education from the ground up.

DSM-V Will Avoid Videogame Addiction

There are very few windmills I’ve charged at on this blog over the years, but one notion I have battled is the idea of video game “addiction.” I prefer the Council on Science and Public Health’s term “overuse” for people who spend too much time playing video games, and I simply do not believe it warrants psychological treatment in and of itself. There may be other issues a heavy gamer needs addressing, psychologically, but not solely video game overuse. That’s my position based on years of engagement with others and consumption of what literature there is on the subject.

In the past, I’ve applauded when the AMA called for more research on the issue before formally deciding to declare video game addiction diagnosable. I’ve been delighted with researchers’ efforts to distinguish between the “addictive” elements surrounding online gambling and traditional role playing games. Finally, my position piece on the issue, Video Game Addiction: Fact or Fiction, remains popular and is currently first to show up on Google searches for “video game addiction fiction,” and fourth on “video game addiction fact.”

So now, the time approaches for the DSM to be modified. One major development in the issue of video game addiction has been to roll it into a broader category of Internet addiction. Since most games these days are online, this sort of makes sense. Overuse of all types of screen time, though, might challenge the definition a bit. If a child spends too much time playing a game that is not connected to the Internet, could he be diagnosed as addicted to the Internet? You can see the difficulties.

Fortunately, the committee in charge of revisions sees the difficulties, too. News this week indicates that gambling will be included in DSM-V as a behavioral disorder, but Internet addiction will not. It will be relegated to an appendix in order to encourage more research, and possible future inclusion in DSM-VI. Of course with so many years between revisions, the relationships we’ve developed with Internet technology may substantially change by that time. Social networking hardly existed just a few years ago, after all.

So, this is a good thing. I’m glad this blog played a part, however small, in the discussion on video game addictions and the struggle over defining it. The public can comment on the proposed revisions to the DSM here, through April. DSM-V is scheduled to be published in 2012-2013, after field trials have been conducted on new and revised diagnoses.

Gever, J. (2010, February 10). DSM-V draft promises big changes in some psychiatric diagnoses. [Online.] Available:

New 3D Learning Book by Karl Kapp

Karl Kapp is a longtime friend of this blog. His first comment was on a post comparing Second Life to World of Warcraft for educational purposes, way back in 2007, and his blog, Kapp Notes, has been on my blogroll ever since. Dr. Kapp is a full professor of instructional technology over at Bloomsburg University, and is a prominent thought leader and author in the field.

One of the things several researchers in educational gaming picked up on early was the facilitation immersive worlds featuring human-like avatars offered for teaching and learning. This idea has come to be generally termed “3D learning,” because the virtual gaming worlds in which it takes place are rendered in three dimensional graphics. It feels like you are in the world instead of simply playing a board game.

It seems to be a powerful learning tool, and has attracted a lot of attention from educational researchers. Perhaps, researchers suspect, there is something to the notion of transference, where players feels like they are experiencing what their avatar in the 3D virtual world is going through and go on to transfer knowledge from that virtual world to real life applications. Perhaps it is conducive to Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory, where time becomes irrelevant in the pursuit of passionate tasks. Regardless, it’s an intriguing idea that researchers continue to investigate.

Karl Kapp’s latest book, co-authored with Tony O’Driscoll, explores the ramifications of teaching and learning within these immersive virtual environments. Aptly titled, Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration, provides a blueprint for corporate and educational professional development personnel when embarking on efforts to include this type of training in their organizations. Recently, Dr. Kapp made a digital preview of the book available to several bloggers, and embarked on a “virtual book tour.” I was honored to be included on the list, and found the book to be impressive.

I think one of the key contributions to the field this book makes is its insistence that 3D learning is a valid and valuable tool for both corporations and universities. For instance, the whole idea of role playing within virtual 3D environments is supported and reinforced in the book. Business personnel have long known the value of role playing within training regimens. I recall a conversation with someone familiar with the training program for the sales force of a Fortune 100 company. An artificial office environment was created, complete with cameras and recording equipment. The trainee would enter the office and attempt to sell the company’s products to another employee posing as a potential client. Trainers would later review the recordings and help the trainee hone techniques. This entire process is greatly facilitated through 3D virtualization, as the book makes clear.

On an entirely selfish note, I was glad to see the acronym “VIE” included, something I introduced to the field in 2007 in an article in the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education. I called it a virtual interactive environment, while Kapp and O’Driscoll use it to mean virtual immersive environment. Regardless, it amounts to the same thing, and I’m glad to see the idea spread. Education and corporations can use a lot more VIEs.

Learning STEMs from McLarin’s Adventures in Oklahoma

Justin Bathon over at EdJurist sent a note the other day discussing McLarin’s Adventures. This is an interesting educational video game developed under the leadership of Scott Wilson, director of educational gaming initiatives at OU’s K20 Center. It follows sound 3D learning doctrine in order to achieve pedagogical objectives, placing students in a quest-based MMORPG to map an uncharted island. Teamwork is key as students work together on goals in the game.

Funding came through a US Dept. of Ed. STAR Schools Grant. The game is STEM-based, focused primarily on physics and the other sciences, with feedback for teachers to pinpoint needs for individual students. Here’s the introductory video:

For more technical details on how the game works in a school environment, take a look at the McLarin’s Adventures Task Manager below (no sound in this video). Note the objectives window and task manager window, and details for network managers:

It’s evident the team at OU has done a great job. An article in Oklahoma City’s The Journal Record reports student workers in various majors were contracted for programming, graphics, and voice dubbing. Sounds like a monumental coordinated effort that paid off with a premium product.

Finally, the project offers a teacher portal for stakeholder discussion and information dissemination, including calendars, shared docs, and a place to report bugs. All in all, the folks over at the K20 Center at OU have done an outstanding job in developing a functional, and by all accounts fun to play, pedagogical game.

Brus, B. (2009, May 5). A gamer’s paradise found in Oklahoma’s classrooms. The Journal Record. [Online.] Retrieved January 13, 2010 from:

Five Video Games for ESL and Language Development

Kathy Sargent, outgoing editor for TechEdge, (who is a great editor and has done a remarkable job over the years as Director of Communications for TCEA) recently accepted my article on “Virtual ESL” for the next issue. This post expands on the article with games suitable for ESL and the ongoing development of English skills. Certain video games are particularly well-suited to language acquisition and development, a point I made here a couple years ago. There is a heavy dollop of personal opinion in the assertions below, and I welcome dissenting views. Some of these suggestions are relatively expensive, some are free, and all but one are available online.

  1. Second Life
    Second Life
    has a long history of educational adaptation, and the idea of using the environment for ESL purposes was adopted early. Like many efforts with no external motivations however, some formal ESL initiatives have fizzled over time. One still going strong is the Second Life English Community. Founder Kip Boahn had a nice article profiling his work in Forbes a while back. Players from almost 100 different countries regularly gather for such online ESL activities as phonetic treasure hunts through SLEC.

    The global reach, open nature, and ease of use offered by SL, (not to mention the fact it’s free), have helped academics around the world key in to the platform for language training. Since avatars can type or talk over a simple computer connection, engaging native speakers in an interesting 3D environment that is not overly taxing to most hardware results in an ideal environment for language learning.

  2. World of Warcraft.
    Of the millions of players frequenting the popular MMORPG, you might be surprised to learn there are some engaged in educational activities amidst all that medieval fantasy action. The most famous group devoted to exploring pedagogy in WoW is the guild Cognitive Dissonance, run by Lucas Gillespie and Peggy Sheehy. Lucas’ blog EduRealms follows his educational efforts in the game.

    It is very easy to start up groups and guilds in WoW, and while Asian gold farmers have annoyed North American players in the past, Dr. Edd Schneider over at SUNY-Potsdam gained considerable attention in 2007 for suggesting WoW was a promising platform for ESL in Asia, provided stateside supervised guidance was included.

  3. My Word Coach
    Although available for the Wii, the DS version of My Word Coach offers players an easier time writing, with its included stylus and touch screen. Plus, the “DS factor” makes it more portable and affordable for classroom or after-school use. It’s not promoted as an ESL product, but the vocabulary training couched in a gaming environment works just as well for non-native speakers.
  4. Webkinz
    The popular children’s game tied to collectible plush dolls offers a restricted communications feature. “Kinz chat” uses basic sentence elements for players to communicate. While Webkinz probably is not suitable to older ESL students, for the younger crowd it offers a fun and relatively painless way to introduce English. It’s also offered in 12 other languages, so gamers can play in their native tongue as well as the Queen’s.
  5. Whyville
    is the free online world designed for children learning, and it has an impressive pedigree with corporate and government sponsorship stretching back several years. Although its strengths lie in STEM games and activities, one of the key features of Whyville appealing to teachers is the sanitized chat feature where cursing is automatically edited out.

In the process of investigating the many mini-games out there, a couple of nifty titles rose to the top. The advantages to using online mini-games for ESL include the fact that teacher supervision is not as heavily needed as it is for the above examples. On the other hand, mini-games typically focus on a much narrower skill set, and kids may tire of them quickly.

A couple of my favorites in the mini-game category included Word Frog, which is a neat way to drill antonyms and such, ala Number Crunchers. I also enjoyed Grammar Ninja,which drills identifying parts of speech in a playful way.

World of Warcraft Goes to School, Part II

I was happy to plug Lucas Gillespie’s WoW in Schools wiki a few weeks ago, designed to offer a collaboration point for lesson materials centered on World of Warcraft. Since then, publicity for the effort has multiplied, and recently WoW staff became interested. They interviewed Gillespie and co- educational conspirator Peggy Sheehy, who helped start a guild aimed at educators, among many other things. (Love the guild’s name: Cognitive Dissonance.)

Some really good info here for teachers interested in starting a program for at risk and/or gifted kids. Typically, Sheehy and Gillespie said, this sort of program begins in an after school environment. Sheehy indicated kids who test at lower reading levels perform higher in a gaming context.

Other items of interest: Both indicated the highest levels of professional decorum must be maintained when playing online with kids, especially after hours. Said Sheehy: “We would not be embarrassed if the school board saw our chats or heard our discourse.”

Another striking tidbit was the enthusiasm of fellow educators. Again, from Sheehy:

I was just standing around the main office in my school one day, talking to my principal who’s a great guy and we have a nice relationship. I turned to him and I said, “Hey, you’re a gamer, aren’t you, Brian?” And he just kinda looked at me and said “Yeahhh … Why?” And I said, “I just leveled up! I just got to level 40 last night in World of Warcraft,” and he just kind of smiled. And then every once in a while, I’d make these comments to him, until one day I said “Level 70,” and he said, ” … you do know that I have like four level 80 ‘toons?”

Then I started hounding him to join the guild — and he did. So now there’s a whole new dynamic, because now when I go into a 10-man raid, the first thing I do is say, “Ok, I gotta make sure that my principal doesn’t die.” Now, when I talk to the kids at school, I’ll have my iPhone out and have Chest open or something and be looking at my armor, and the kids’ll say, “Let’s see Mr. Fox’s armor!” And then I get an e-mail from him saying, “I just had three kids come into the office and tell me I had to get more purples on my Hunter.”

Read the full transcript here.

World of Warcraft Goes to School

Lucas Gillespie, whose EduRealms site has long been on my blogroll, has started a wiki for teachers on using World of Warcraft in the classroom. In a recent entry, Gillespie notes that several educators use WoW, and the responses from those he’s shared the wiki with have been very positive.

Gillespie leads a guild with other teachers he works with along with several students, and he has long noted that enthusiasm for the game can be translated into increased educational moments of opportunity. Since MMORPGs are essentially dynamic databases of ever-changing statistics, math becomes a reasonable subject to explore in-game. Creative writing has long been a staple of gaming, and now machinima adds to that by introducing 21st Century skills to student assignments. Opportunities abound for critical thinking, too.

Read more on his article about using WoW in school here, and visit the wiki here.

Update: GameSetWatch has a better write-up here. Thanks, Eric!

New Issue: Journal of Virtual Worlds Research

A new issue of Journal of Virtual Worlds Research is out. This issue’s focus: Pedagogy, Education, and Innovation in Virtual Worlds. Click here for the journal’s home page, where you can access current and past articles. James Paul Gee has a paper in this issue entitled Games, Learning, and 21st Century Survival Skills. Many of the other articles focus on Second Life in education. There is one on Quest Atlantis. JVWR is published by the Virtual Worlds Research Consortium, a Texas non-profit.

Study: Internet Socializing Important for Teen Development

The MacArthur Foundation released a study indicating teens’ online socialization skills are nurtured and developed through exposure to social sites and other online places where socializing may occur such as in massively multiple online role playing games (MMORPGs). On the other hand, the study found teens are not using Internet resources to their full potential for scholastic purposes. But, teens do engage heavily in “peer-based, self-directed learning online” in topics that interest them.

The study lasted three years, included 800 subjects, and 5000 hours observation of online behavior. The research was led by Mizuko Ito over at UC Irvine. The New York Times reported on the study here. The executive summary can be found here.

Lewin, T. (2008, November 18). Teenagers’ internet socializing not a bad thing. The New York Times. [Online]. Retrieved November 23, 2008 from: